Tuesday, March 23, 2010


I'm disappointed the picture doesn't show much detail. It looks funerary because it is indeed a shot inside a funeral home. When my mother died her remains were cremated, so for the visitation and memorial service we wanted something there to remind people of Mother. We emptied out a cupboard and filled it with artifacts from her life. There's a quilt she sewed under a piece of an old woven bedspread which we pinned photos. In the cupboard there's her sewing basket and a notebook with recipes. The Srabble board is open with the yellow pad we kept score. In her last days she wasn't always too coherent, but still managed to beat me in a game. Her vocabulary was immense.

This trope worked very well, there are too many little details to point out in the cupboard, but you get the picture. After we gathered together to say our prayers and sing our songs, we closed the door and locked it. Then a few of the grandchildren carried the chest to my mother's pickup truck to load it on for a parade back to our house for food. Along the parade home the chest fell over, and very nearly off the truck. That was funny and appropriate because my mother was always strapping something to the car to transport and on a few occasions she actually did loose the load. Where do stories like this fit?

This story has nothing to do with Kenya, I've never traveled to Kenya and nor did my mother. But I'm still ruminating on Njorge Matathia's post Tech Killed The Kenyan Blog. The cupboard we quickly filled with artifacts which somehow told stories about my mother occurred to me because those artifacts were so physical. And I wondered about the artifacts we create in cyberspace and the issue of curation which Matathia raises. I'm sure he making a good point, but it's so hard for me to place the blame on "tech."

Umair Haque has a new post up, The Social Media Bubble which seems to me to be making a similar point in a more general context; essentially that our online relationships are too thin and insubstantial. I'm not sure I agree with him either. I do note that the number of responses to his post seem greater in number than usual. Some of the comments are strongly in agreement, but most seem to offer nuance. Haque writes:
Today, "social" media is trading in low-quality connections — linkages that are unlikely to yield meaningful, lasting relationships.
I certainly have "lasting" relationships from online connections. What's true of most of these relationships is a great physical distance between us, but I'm loathe to think that the distance makes these relationships less than real.

There is some quite brilliant writing on blogs--I certainly haven't produced any. While I do seek out brilliant writing, I'm quite happy reading the quick and ready writing that's more common online. If friends were to memorialize me with my online writing, it's not clear what the story would show. Clearly that I'm a poor speller and proof reader would be evident, but that's not much of a story. Social media has introduced me to profound friendships that I'm truly grateful for. But my own online content when viewed objectively reveals a shoddy quality, and I'm hardly alone.

What I think both Matathia and Haque critiques have in common is a question of how to increase the thickness and quality of both personal relationships and content produced online. Both note the central importance of authentic relationships to such production. Certainly being in the same room can help forge authentic relationships, but there's no guarantee. There seems a certain similar ambiguity about content, like online writing. Physical content, like the the objects in we put into the cupboard to tell stories about my mother, seem to have authenticity that's hard to quibble with. Content displayed online seems to invite more quibbling. For people of a certain age works in print have a special sort of authenticity.

I'm very much in favor of beautifully made books with exquisite content. But I also like the idea of very inexpensive books. I want children to have stories they can enjoy and share with their friends. I want text books cheap enough for every school to afford to have them. It's easy to imagine that e-book readers in the near future will be inexpensive. I like the idea of e-book, but still think that printed books have a future. What's true right now is that computers and the Internet make the editorial production side of inexpensive books easier than before.

I noted with interest something Dimitri Orlov has done in part to help raise some funds so he can continue writing a book he's working on. Here's how he puts it:
Two years and just under a million unique visitors later it is time for this blog to ask for something back. But instead of an endless beg-a-thon, I've decided to give my readers something valuable in return for their donations: anyone who donates in excess of $20 will receive a numbered, autographed copy of a limited edition book which contains five of the most significant (and longest) essays I have published between 2005 and 2009.
So he's self-published a book of some of his Internet writing to participially fund writing a proper book. I like that. Perhaps it's because I'm "of a certain age," that makes me love books so. It's more than that, I think, books are a remarkable invention.

Dimitri Orlov writes about collapse of civilizations. When in that state of mind I often wonder about lost technologies, for example the scraping of movable type printing presses. I'm not really sure what the best sort of printing process for really cheap books is. Very expensive printing presses can cheaply produce mass quantities of books, there's already a market model for that kind of production. What I'm interested in finding is a printing process that's cheap for a more distributed production model. Back before photocopiers were common there were mimeograph machines, distinct from spirit duplicators to which people my age have a nostalgic attachment to from the aroma of the alcohol that lingered on the sheets. Mimeographs used cut stencils, the common method was to use a typewriter to cut the stencils, although the stencils could be cut by hand writing with a pen or stylus.

I had thought the mimeograph process had become extinct, but modern versions of the machines are quite neat. They use scanner technology and a thermal head to cut the stencil. The printing is faster and cheaper than toner-based photocopiers. And for runs of up to about 5,000 pages cheaper than offset printing. The machines are not cheap, but cheaper than many photocopiers. They are however heavy and so not as portable as the older mimeograph machines. Once the pages have been printed binding the books is something that could be done with little investment in tools, and various investments in time.

I strongly suspect that I'm missing something essential about this, because if it's such a good idea why aren't people already doing it?

I'm not sure of the right formula, there actually probably are many formulas which are "right." I do think that print is far from being obsolete, so that one of the key challenges is to find ways to bring some writing and make it live in print. One of the attributes of online writing is that it's often done for free or entailing very little monetary reward. The habit of thought about printed works always seems to point in the direction of requiring lots of money. Thinking really cheap seems to open all sorts of new possibilities.

I was with friends last night telling stories around a bon fire. The moon lit the woods in wonderful moonlight and no other setting I can think of is more conducive to telling stories. In regards to one idea or another a friend said that ideas are like a generally unmentioned--at least in polite company--human orifice, and we've all got one.

One of the reasons that I have tried to encourage my friends in meatspace to pay more attention to developments in Africa, comes around to a view that much of the technology we currently take for granted is unsustainable over the long term. In response interest in what E. F. Schumacher called intermediate technology strikes me as really good to cultivate. And from my obnoxiously privileged vantage point I make comments like: "If it works in Africa, it can work anywhere." I do think that a distributed publishing model of printed work has real potential in Africa. But what I'm realizing now is that making something work where I am has the same potential; i.e. what works for a poor guy in Pennsylvania might also work in Africa. It's hardly a new idea, I'm a late comer to zine culture. Still I think cheap books are a good idea, and the thing for me to do is to start making some!

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